White House chief of staff John F. Kelly is the steady hand currently attempting to guide President Trump. And he was a pretty steady hand Thursday during his guest turn leading the White House press briefing.
But his explanation of Trump's tweets just doesn't hold up.
Kelly was made to try to explain Trump's apparent threat Thursday to cut off funding to Puerto Rico's hurricane recovery effort. And Kelly explained that the tweets were strictly accurate.
Which is true . . . but it's also beside the point.
Here's what Trump tweeted earlier Thursday:
And here's how Kelly explained it:
The minute you go anywhere as a first-responder — and this would apply certainly to the military — you are trying very hard, working very hard to work yourself out of a job. There will be a period in which, we hope sooner rather than later, to where the U.S. military and FEMA generally speaking can withdraw, because then the government and the people of Puerto Rico are recovering sufficiently to start the process of rebuilding. … So this country — our country will stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done. But the tweet about FEMA and [the Defense Department] — read: military — is exactly accurate; they’re not going to be there forever. And the whole point is to start to work yourself out of a job and then transition to the rebuilding process.
All of this makes complete sense. And Trump's tweet that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the military and first-responders can't be in Puerto Rico forever is strictly accurate. Forever is a long time, and nothing lasts that long (we hear).
But Trump wasn't making a bland statement of fact here; he was tying the exit of those first-responders to Puerto Rico's financial crisis, its lack of accountability and its poor infrastructure. What's more, he said all of this to Puerto Rico just three weeks after the hurricane — as it is still confronting the size of the gargantuan task ahead.
Even under the most charitable reading, it seemed like a strange time to be bringing up the bill and the end date for the recovery effort. A less-charitable reading is that Trump wants out at some point and is laying a marker.
The point of Trump's tweets isn't their accuracy, but rather their implications. When a TV gangster says, “That's a nice business you got there; it'd be a shame if something happened to it,” he's technically being accurate. It would be a shame if something were to happen to your business. But that's not really the point of what he said, is it?
Kelly also said that the country would “stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done,” but that's the opposite of what Trump was hinting at in his tweet. Trump was suggesting that the task was so huge in Puerto Rico — through fault of its own — that Congress needed to decide how far the United States would go in finishing that job. Trump was suggesting the U.S. might not finish the job, especially if the funding from Congress isn't there.
Defending Trump from that podium is a thankless job, and it often requires pretending Trump was saying something other than what he said — that he wasn't implying the thing that he clearly seemed to be implying.
In this case, Trump's implication was clear. Even if what he was saying was, in fact, “exactly accurate,” in context it's clear he was doing more than just reciting facts.